It may name them in its title, but Ghost Town is a movie which is not very interested in ghosts. Otherworldy spirits are included in the plot, almost begrudgingly, as if the writers only tossed them in there to justify their interesting little film about a lonely curmudgeon to Hollywood’s blockbuster hunger audiences. That’s alright, you don’t need the restless souls of the deceased when you have a talent like Ricky Gervais.
Ghost Town stars Gervais as the aforementioned curmudgeon, a dentist named Bertram Pincus who hates people and goes out of his way to dodge them. When we meet Bertram, he’s avoiding a party thrown for someone at work, ducking out of conversation with his doorman, and refusing to hold the elevator door for his neighbors… not out of malice, but out of a simple desire to avoid being forced to interact with them. He isn’t a bad person, just a little shy, impatient and, perhaps unintentionally, a bit of a dick. It’s hard to hate Bertram, even when he’s stealing cabs from women in the rain or asking his Indian colleague to teach him how to torture people because he comes from one of those bad places. He just wants to be left alone.
Bertram, though living, moves through life like he’s dead. He’s desperate to avoid being noticed or forced into enduring mankind’s blathering. I’d have been content to follow fat, socially clumsy Pincus around New York doing nothing for a few hours, but this is a movie and so we need something interesting to happen. That occurs early on, when Pincus goes in for a routine operation, and dies for seven minutes. The doctors bring him back, but when he wakes up he can see and interact with the ghosts of New York’s dead.
The ghosts are generally friendly, but also excited about the prospect of having someone corporeal they can communicate with. They bum rush Bertram, begging him for help in setting right things with their loved ones, so they can finally quit haunting and shuffle off to heaven. Bertram isn’t interested. Eventually, unable to take their pestering he gives in and agrees to help a tuxedoed spirit named Frank (Greg Kinnear) keep his wife Gwen from marrying an asshole gold digger, as long as Frank promises to get the other ghosts off his back. Frank’s wife is played by Tea Leoni, and is therefore irresistible. Grouchy Bertram is instantly smitten.
The heart of this story is not other worldly exploration, but Bertram’s slow awakening into the world of communication with other people, courtesy of a growing affection for Gwen. The ghosts are there mostly as a MacGuffin, an excuse to push Bertram out amongst the living. It’s not a particularly brilliant script, but David Koepp’s direction is both gentle and sweet, while Gervais is completely undeterred by the fairly pedestrian nature of the movie he’s landed in. He makes it his own, refusing to let either his performance or his film settle for being another ordinary guy helps ghost make good movie. Ricky makes even the movie’s most mundane moments endearing, it’s most pedantic dialogue gut-bustingly funny.
In anyone else’s hands, Ghost Town could have been Over Her Dead Body or any of a dozen other similar movies which have come and gone from theaters in recent years. Koepp and Gervais seem to know that and have joined forced to skew their mediocre script away from the been there done that ghost stuff, to focus on the sardonic, surprising journey of one, frequently befuddled and irritated character. The result is a tenderhearted, charming comedy which should at last wake the world up to the immense, raw talent of one Ricky Gervais.